No rest to be the best: Athletes prepare year-round as offseason training evolves
When high school football fans take their seats at area stadiums on Friday nights in the fall, they are witnessing the finished product of months of sweat, determination and dedication.
High school players spend countless hours training in the offseason. Often times, that preparation begins as soon as one season comes to end.
But it wasn't always that way.
“When I was in high school in the mid-80s, we had captains practices two nights a week,” Connellsville coach Dave McDonald said. “There was really no offseason conditioning program. As far as lifting goes, our high school coach had a weight room in his garage and he opened it up from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., but the pressure to be there just wasn't there. Now, if you're not doing it, you're falling behind because everybody is doing it.”
According to new Southmoreland coach Mark Adams, college recruiting has played a big role in the explosion of offseason training.
“The idea of getting a Division I scholarship is big,” Adams said. “Now, there really is no offseason. It's no longer a five-month sport; it's a 12-month sport.”
McDonald also said he believes the prospect of playing at the next level on scholarship has provided plenty of motivation for players to greatly expand their offseason workout routines.
“It's a 12-month job,” McDonald said. “Our kids were in the weight room two weeks after the season ended. When you look at the number of kids trying to get scholarships, they better be conditioned or they don't have a shot. The guys that win year-in and year-out in recruiting are still looking for that blue-collar type of kid.”
Because training is a year-round process for many high school football players, much more goes into their workouts than simply lifting weights a couple of days a week. Speed training has become a regular part of daily routines.
“Because of the speed of the game, you have to be in tip-top shape,” said Adams, noting that the Scotties incorporate speed training into their offseason workout program.
Justin Rechichar owns a degree in exercise physiology. As an assistant coach with the Scotties, he is tasked with the responsibility of working with the athletes to help them gain quickness.
“Obviously, football is an explosive sport,” Rechichar said. “We're working on first-step quickness because if you can have that explosive first step, that is a definite intangible.”
Jumping from a standing position, stretching and working on starts and stops are all key components to speed training.
Another major development in the past two decades has been the evolution of the seven-on-seven drills. These scaled-down versions of football focus on team fundamentals and are generally held in the months leading up to training camp. It gives the players a chance to perform without pads in simulated football situations. Often times, the seven-on-seven drills are coordinated with neighboring schools, giving players the element of outside competition.
Mt. Pleasant coach Bo Ruffner recalls that in the mid-1990s, the seven-on-seven camps and clinics began to rise in popularity, particularly at some local colleges such as Edinboro.
“The colleges started running seven-on-sevens and now a lot of schools get together to try to help each other out,” Ruffner said.
Leading into the season, Mt. Pleasant utilized seven-on-seven drills against teams such as Connellsville, Laurel Highlands and Greensburg Salem.
“It's about getting the kids a chance to understand the system,” Ruffner said. “The seven-on-sevens are the fun part because they are playing simulated football, and it's definitely a break from the running and lifting part of the program.”
Of course, hitting the weight room is still the biggest part of offseason training.
“In the offseason, that's all we are and that's what we do,” Connellsville senior linebacker/tight end Jimmy DeMarco said.
But even the standard routine of pounding out set after set has changed a bit. DeMarco noted that at Connellsville, competition exists, even in the weight room.
“We call it strength games,” DeMarco said. “We do five or six different lifts. The winner is determined by fastest time. Sometimes we do it as individuals or teams of four.”
Predictably, the enhanced changes in offseason training have had a dramatic impact on the way training camps are run.
“In the past, kids came to camp to get in shape,” Ruffner said. “Now, they are in shape when they get to camp and that allows us to spend more time on the football part and teaching techniques.”
While many things have changed in terms of offseason training, the desire to be successful remains constant.
“There are some mornings you wake up and you don't want to do it,” DeMarco said. “But you have to push yourself to get the work done. I want to win and I think that's everyone's goal.”
Jason Black is the local sports editor of the Daily Courier. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.